Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Great European Vacation: The Alps

We saw a lot of very pretty places on this vacation, but I must say: the Alps are the prettiest place that I’ve seen. Ever. Anywhere. This is a very strong statement from someone who’s been to Yosemite, to the Grand Canyon, to Zion….but I stand by it. The Alps are much greener than the big American mountain ranges I’ve visited. Also, they are generally much steeper and craggier. I think that the Alps must be younger, geologically speaking, than the Rockies or California’s Sierra Nevada. See the pictures at:

We’ve only been to the Jungfrau area of Switzerland and the Dolomites of Italy, but I’m eager to see more. Incredible mountain vistas…and so very peaceful and restful. In these areas of Europe, hiking is a much more civilized activity. There are cable cars to take you to the top (or very near the top) of the mountains! You hike (or in our case, wander slowly, admiring the abundant colorful flowers and butterflies) to a restaurant and have a lovely lunch at the top of the mountain, or in the middle of a meadow. I’m sure there are more remote areas where the serious mountaineers go. But without going to too much trouble, there’s an awful lot of nice scenery available. There was much spinning in flower covered meadows (eat your heart out Julie Andrews!), but we never managed to figure out which one of the flowers was the Edelweiss. We had cloudy weather and afternoon thunderstorms for most of our stay, which meant that we had to get up and going to take advantage of the morning weather to go hiking. We didn’t take the cable cars to the tops of the mountains in Switzerland; they were all fogged in, and there was no view. But we plan to return, hopefully in September.

A nice addition to our hiking experiences was the music of the cowbells. Yes, cowbells. Many of the cows in the area are belled, and the resulting random notes create a lovely background symphony as you hike the trails. These aren’t the harsh rectangular cowbells like the ones I’ve normally seen in the USA; these oval-shaped bells create a beautiful, pure tone that is a real pleasure to listen to. Tonya bought a couple of different-sized bells that we’ll use as wind chimes to remind us of the Alps.

Driving from the Jungfrau region back down into Italy, we had to cross right over the backbone of the Alps. I was really looking forward to the vistas we’d get as we went over Grimsel Pass (2,165 meters or 7,100 feet high…and that’s just the pass between the mountains!). In one of the great tragedies of the era, it was raining heavily for the early part of the drive, and we were socked in with fog as we got up to the pass. At the top, the visibility was about 50 feet. Sigh. As we were coming down the other side, the clouds cleared up somewhat, so we did get some nice views. But I felt a bit cheated.

One unexpected treat was in Bolzano, Italy (or Bolzen. This area of Italy is German-speaking, so all of the towns have German and Italian names. The Italian names were a project of Mussolini, who took the reasonable attitude that Italian cities should have Italian names.) You may remember some years back that there was a human body recovered from the ice in the Alps, and it turned out to be 5,000 years old. (For more information, go to The Ice Man (Otzi) is in a museum in Bolzano, along with much of the clothing, weapons, and tools that were found with him. It’s a fascinating glimpse into how people lived in the ancient Alps. Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures in the museum. From the examination of the body, it appears that Otzi died a violent death. There is some scope for imagination here; I’m surprised that no one has attempted to write a historical fiction based on it.

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